David Hennessy talks to the actor Rex Ryan, son of the late broadcaster Gerry Ryan, about his play Pilgrim, about to play at Edinburgh Festival, that deals with the theme of fatherhood in the aftermath of the horrors of 9/11
The holiday was supposed to be his escape from reality and responsibility but when Dubliner Christy receives word that a sweetheart back home is pregnant, he decides to has to go back. Although he may not be ready for any of it, he boards the plane only for events nobody could have expected to stop him getting to Dublin. The date is September 11 2001 and Christy becomes embroiled in the 9/11 horror. His return flight to Dublin is re-routed to Gander Airport in Canada and Christy finds himself in the tiny fishing community of Gambo in Newfoundland as US airspace is closed. He is forced to stay there for four days as all civilian flights are grounded.
Rex Ryan, who plays Christy, explains the dramatic events and Christy’s journey make him more ready to take on the massive changes in his own life: “We meet Christy. He’s been in California for five months on a J1 type trip and it’s been five months of debauchery and women and sex and him just running away from his reality. He’s gone off to America not really for discovery but just for loads of drinking and getting a tan.
“Then what happens is he gets an email from a girl called Penny. Penny was and is really his sweetheart but it’s a love unrequited and he left her to go on this J1 so he’s got an email from Penny saying she’s pregnant.
“This is the point in his life that we meet him. He’s decided that he’s going to go back to Dublin to confront this but in terms of him being a man and in terms of his maturity, he’s so not ready to do this. He’s going to fly back to Dublin and he’s going to deal with this baby probably not in a mature manner.
“He jumps on the plane, he’s taken off on his Transatlantic flight and two stealth bombers flank the airplane and there’s an announcement over the intercom and the pilot says 9/11 has happened, the twin towers have been attacked.”
The story is not one of complete fantasy but one Philip Doherty was inspired to write by true events: “This is a real thing that happened which I thought was just so crazy that I didn’t know about it, I think a lot of people don’t know about it.
“A lot of the planes that were in the air on that day at that time were all redirected. A huge number of them were redirected to Newfoundland to Gander airport and what happened was all the people, who ended up being called ‘the plane people’, were dispersed around different small fishing villages, all over Newfoundland.
“This happens to Christy, his plane is grounded in Newfoundland, nothing is explained and he is basically trapped in this place called Gambo which is a town of approximately 2,000. This small fishing villages kind of turns into an allegory for the world because nationalities from all over the world have descended on this small village and he basically goes through a three day discovery or a three day journey of becoming a man or coming to terms with his responsibilities as a man through meeting all these people and going through these huge dramatic events in this small town.”
Rex was nominated for Best Actor at Dublin Fringe Fest 2013 for his performance in The Birthday Man, also by Philip Doherty. Other stage credits include The Motherfucker With the Hat, where he was directed by Aoife Spillane-Hinks, also taking the helm of Pilgrim. Pilgrim has been performed at last year’s Dublin Fringe but revised since then.
“It was originally around 90 minutes which was just a bit crazy for everyone involved. I think we’ve got down to about 75 so we’ve lost a lot of things which I think it’s better for and Phil has added in a couple of scenes. I think it’s a better piece than the one we did in the fringe festival in Dublin.”
Asked if he brought his own experiences to the role, Rex says he goes back to his own J1 experiences: “I studied business when I left secondary school, kind of inexplicably as I was never going to do anything business related. I studied business mostly as a vehicle to travel during the summer because I knew I could slightly coast through the business degree so I used that to travel for three years.
“I did the J1 thing all around California, San Diego, all these places so it’s not something that would be foreign to me. Of course, the Gambo thing, I’ve never been through anything like that in my life but the J1 thing is not something that’s foreign to me. The other summers I’ve been to Thailand and I’ve been inter-railing so I’ve travelled a lot. I’ve been to America an awful lot and I’ve been every year for the last 24 years because my family holiday every year we go to Florida so I’m very familiar with America but after that, it’s all just to use your imagination, use your own life experiences to project onto that story, that character.
“But I think 9/11, that’s something that we all remember. Politically, historically, that’s probably the biggest moment of our lives for our generation, it was a huge, huge moment and we all remember where we were.
“I remember where I was, I was in a place called the Soccer Shop on George Street in Dublin with my mum, but I just remember standing in the soccer shop and looking up at the telly and just seeing the smoke billowing from the towers and we all remember how we felt at that moment and I suppose using that seed, that emotion that is very universal, helps. And that is a theme that is in the play, how this horrible terrible atrocious event brought people together and that’s what happened in that small fishing village. Phil uses this term, ‘a positive apocalypse’ because when it happened, people didn’t know if there was going to be another 150 plane attacks. They didn’t know if this was World War Three beginning. It brought people together.”
With it’s poignancy and theme of fatherhood, has the piece prompted Rex to think about his own father who passed away in 2010? “Fatherhood is a very strong theme, fatherhood and coming to terms with fatherhood, what makes a good father and I suppose what do you do to become a good father? So of course, yeah, you don’t want to but you can’t help but use your personal experiences and I suppose it’s just how you channel them.
“I have to draw on my experiences with my own father and put myself in the imaginary position of, what if I found myself in this situation of having to man up and look to my dad, look how he did that in certainly less dramatic circumstances but how did he do it? I couldn’t help but draw on my experiences of my dad because one of the main issues in the play is fatherhood and that’s the craziest thing, what is it and how do you deal with it? It’s the biggest thing that happens to us in our lives, isn’t it? I don’t know if I’m ready to be but of course, I draw on my own father and other fathers that I know.”
There was a sad news recently of a number of young Irish people who died in California following a balcony collapse. Like Rex has done and Christy in the play, these young Irish people went to America on J1 visas to explore a new country and culture only for it to end in tragedy: “I just thought it was very, very sad. Just complete tragedy. I just feel for the families. Things like that, you just think, don’t make sense. They were just about to embark on this massive adventure and it’s just cut short horribly and it was make you wonder. Doesn’t make sense. It’s sad.”
Pilgirm plays at Pleasance Above, Pleasance Courtyard from August 5-31 as part of Edinburgh Festival. Address: Pleasance Above, Pleasance Courtyard, 60 Pleasance, Edinburgh, EH8 9TJ. Pleasance Courtyard Box Office: 0131 556 6550. More info: www.pleasance.co.uk, www.thegonzotheatre.blogspot.co.uk